First Cup: Thursday

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Two years ago, Zach Randolph nearly carried the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals but came up a little short. The Grizzlies’ power forward wasn’t strong enough to contribute to a long postseason run last season because of his challenging recovery from a knee injury. But Wednesday night, a healthy Randolph forcefully put his imprint all over the Grizzlies’ 88-84 Game 5 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Griz won the Western Conference semifinals, 4-1, on the strength of Randolph’s 28 points and 14 rebounds in the closeout game. He helped punch the Grizzlies’ ticket to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. “Zach was huge the whole game,” Griz coach Lionel Hollins said. “He came out snorting and grunting. He carried us offensively.” In expressing his desire to win a championship, Randolph emphasized there’s still work to be done. Clearly, though, one of the league’s most feared bullies in the paint is back on the block. Also, grit-and-grind basketball will now play for a trip to the NBA Finals. “This just tells you that when you keep a core together and you stick with them, good things can happen,” Randolph said.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Shame it had to end like this. You can only wonder what would have been had Russell Westbrook been healthy. Instead, the inevitable finally happened tonight. All things considered, this was a great season. Nothing to be ashamed about. Division champs. Sixty wins. Best record in the conference. The best regular season in the OKC era even after James Harden was traded five days beforehand. A second round appearance even after Westbrook went down two games into the first round. “We had a really good season,” said Kevin Durant. More Durant: “It’s tough to swallow now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time.” No need to panic. No need for big changes or major shakeups. Though it might not feel like it right now, this team doesn’t need it. All it needs is a healthy right knee. Get that back and the Thunder is back in business. Back to dominance. Back to being a championship contender. Back to having a bright future. In the meantime, we learned a lot about this group without Westbrook. We learned that Reggie Jackson is ready to break out, possibly as a Most Improved and Sixth Man candidate next year. We learned that Durant does need help and that Westbrook is indeed the best fit for him. We learned that Kevin Martin doesn’t fit, that Scott Brooks can and will bench Kendrick Perkins, that the Thunder’s system is serviceable for the regular season but shaky come the postseason and thatSerge Ibaka has many more strides left to take. … It was fun while it lasted, Derek Fisher. I wonder what the Thunder will do with him next year. His contract is up and the Thunder will have open roster spots. He proved he still has value, both on and off the court. … There’s no edge to this team. OKC is either going to out-athlete you or outscore you. But next year’s team needs some nasty. I’m looking at you, Ronny Turiaf. Find a way, Sam Presti, to lure Reggie Evans from Brooklyn. Rebounds and toughness. The Thunder’s got to have it.

  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: Welcome back, Dwyane Wade. Your timing was impeccable. The chatter entering Wednesday night’s playoff game here centered on the thick elastic wrap on Wade’s right knee and the pain barking underneath it. Could Dwyane be his old, spectacular self? Or was he simply too hurt?The answers were inconclusive much of the night, but emphatic when they absolutely mattered. “I had a good couple minutes,” he said, smiling. Wade did, and that is largely why Miami beat the Chicago Bulls 94-91 Wednesday night to win this second-round series 4 games to 1 and jack the downtown bayside arena into fiesta mode. The result sent depleted Chicago into its offseason after a noble effort, and sends Miami on to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals after a dramatically earned comeback. The Heat is now halfway to a repeat championship. It’s the easy half that’s in the books now. It’s what remains that will find the vintage Wade — healthy or playing like it — in ever greater demand. There is a country music lyric: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good, once, as I ever was.” That was D-Wade, late Wednesday. That might be Wade all this postseason, budgeting his energy and physical strength, waiting to strike, striking in bursts. Wednesday he would finish with 18 points, but the six of those he delivered last recalled a Wade unencumbered by knee-wraps or doubts.

  • Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: Derrick Rose might not be planning much this summer. Whether the Bulls point guard likes it or not, the organization wants more say in what his offseason will consist of. “There will be a plan with him [this offseason],’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We have an offseason program that he’s going to have to go through. It will be mostly the same, but we’ll be adding a few things to it.’’ With good reason. The Bulls watched their season come to an end in a 94-91 Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday. It was the second time in three years that the Heat have put the Bulls on ice. The chasing is getting old. And chasing the defending champs with Rose sitting out the season with his surgically-repaired anterior cruciate ligament? The results weren’t so hot. This summer has to be about getting Rose at full strength physically and mentally if the Bulls want to put an end to their futility against LeBron James’ team. … It’s an even bigger issue when a team limps into a playoff series as the Bulls did. Rose? Out. Luol Deng? Out after complications from a spinal tap. Kirk Hinrich? Never recovered from a bruised left calf suffered in the first-round win over the Brooklyn Nets. … Trailing be three with the ball on the final possession, Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler missed game-tying three-point attempts, ending a drama-filled season. The attention quickly turned to Rose, and rightfully so. … And now the right thing will be doing whatever the team asks of him this summer.

  • Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: Cruising through the web in the aftermath of Game 5, one angle stood out above the others: A short passage at Grantland illustrating just how well the George Hill/Kawhi Leonard swap has worked out for both franchises. Neither are stars, but they’re playing key roles on what will almost certainly be two of the last four teams standing in the 2012-13 season. Leonard has established himself as one of the game’s brightest young prospects with the Spurs, while Hill is running the point with a steady, sometimes spectacular hand for his hometown Pacers. Such was the case on Tuesday, when Hill erupted for 26 points as Indiana took a 3-1 series lead over the New York Knicks. Not long after Leonard scored 17 on only eight shots while applying such withering defense on Golden State’s Klay Thompson that he could not find the space to launch a single 3-point attempt. So many NBA trades are made to free up cap space, or unload a disgruntled star for pennies on the dollar. In this instance, both teams saw assets that could fill glaring needs — in Indiana’s case a starting point guard who had been groomed by the game’s best coach, and in San Antonio’s a much-need infusion of youth and athleticism on the wing. Had the Pacers kept Leonard, or if they’d even drafted him at all with the 15th pick in 2011 without the Spurs’ directive, he’d be overkill behind All-Star small forward Paul George. It would have duplicated the situation Hill faced in San Antonio, where his growth and role were always going to be stunted by the presence of Tony Parker.

  • Monte Poole of The Oakland Tribune: The Warriors approach the possibility of postseason elimination amid heated dialogue about their offense. What's wrong with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? Where is the torrid shooting that made them a popular storyline throughout the playoffs? The more substantive factor for the Warriors, though, has to do with defense. If they don't play it exceedingly well against San Antonio on Thursday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Warriors will walk out of Oracle Arena and directly into the offseason. Defense is the element of the game most consistently discussed by Mark Jackson. On Wednesday, a day after a 109-91 loss in Game 5, the coach once again leaned on the subject. Asked about the suddenly chilly jump shots rolling off the fingers of Steph and Klay, Jackson jumped atop an old soapbox built on the sturdy pillars of league history. … "They shot 72 percent in the first quarter, scored 37 points," he said of the Spurs. "That has nothing to do with Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry shooting the basketball." As someone who spent 17 years as an NBA player and nearly a decade as a close observer, Jackson realizes defense is crucial to postseason success. Understanding his team and the NBA, the coach expressed a tedious truth: Jump shots do not win championships and rarely get a team close to one. … Listening to several Warriors on Wednesday, it was clear Jackson's message was heard. Andrew Bogut, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry all cited defensive shortcomings as the primary factor in losing Game 5. Their heads are in the right place. They seem to understand jump shots can be pleasing to the eye, but that defense determines how far a team goes during the postseason grind. Endurance, after all, requires full grasp of the basics as taught by lessons of the past.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: The lack of respect is still there for the Indiana Pacers. They have beaten up, bullied and shut down the New York Knicks for most of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals. But the credit has yet to show up for the Pacers. The talk of the series has centered on how the Knicks are missing shots, Iman Shumpert’s knee and who is and isn’t playing team basketball. The Pacers can put everybody (outside of the New York market, at least) out of their misery of hearing about those issues Thursday. The Pacers, up 3-1 in the series, can advance to their first Eastern Conference finals since 2004 with a victory. … There’s no better place for the Pacers to get the recognition they deserve than to do it in the Mecca — Madison Square Garden, known as the world’s most famous arena, where the stars sit courtside and the crowd will be so loud fans can’t hear the person next to them. “It’s going to be 10 times harder, it being in New York,” Pacers swingman Paul George said. “We know how well they play at home, so it’s going to take a great effort, so we’ll see where we’re at.” These aren’t the same Pacers who hoped they could win on the road. They know they can win on the road.

  • Howard Beck of The New York Times: The Knicks won 54 games this season on the strength of their offense and were at their most dominant when the ball was moving, the floor was spaced, and Anthony and Smith were alternating good shots with smart passes. That identity has been lost, and Woodson has failed to do anything to restore it. Instead, Woodson went the opposite direction in Game 4 on Tuesday. He abandoned the small lineup that gave the Knicks their edge. He started Kenyon Martin, a defensive-minded enforcer, in a failed attempt to counter the Pacers’ size. He benched Prigioni, whose passing skills had been critical to the Knicks’ offensive rhythm for two months. (Prigioni has the best plus-minus rating of any Knicks starter in the playoffs.) Though the Knicks quickly fell behind by double digits, Woodson stuck with the big lineup for most of the night, thoroughly revamping his rotation in the 90th game of the season. … Woodson has indisputably been a net positive for the Knicks, corralling a locker room of volatile characters and disparate talents and presiding over the franchise’s best season in more than a decade. His failures in this series threaten to overshadow it all. On Wednesday, Woodson abruptly canceled his weekly radio spot with ESPN’s New York affiliate — a first this season. If the Knicks falter again Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, there will be no escaping the backlash. “Blame it on me,” Woodson said. As if the city needs any encouragement.

  • Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee: The Kings are staying in Sacramento. Can we say that again? The Kings are staying in Sacramento. In what would have been considered a major upset only four months ago, the NBA board of governors looked hard at Seattle but did a double-take when evaluating Sacramento. Come again? The league's owners remembered almost three decades of good times – of sellout streaks and international appeal and impassioned crowds even when the team was terrible. They listened to members of the relocation committee and, yes, to their stubborn, respected, retiring commissioner. And, ultimately, they envisioned a revived franchise with impressive new owners, a state-of-the-art arena and an invigorated fan base. "This was not an anti-Seattle vote," Commissioner David Stern said Wednesday. "This was a pro-Sacramento vote." It's true. It happened. Lightning struck, thunder rolled in, and tornado warnings were issued throughout the city known as Big D. But all that happened later in the evening. In the afternoon, while rain pelted the hotel where the owners convened to determine the Kings' future, the Sacramento entourage pitched a near-perfect storm of a presentation.

  • Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times: At the end of the fight, the old, vindictive NBA commissioner couldn't announce the winner without first needling the city he was about to make a loser again. At the end of a polarizing relocation issue that he once described as "wrenching," the man who always measures his words couldn't resist one smug remark directed at Seattle. At the end of another heartbreaking NBA result, David Stern taunted us. "This is going to be short for me," he told reporters in Dallas on Wednesday. "I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City." Ouch. It was a sucker punch followed by a gut punch. First, Stern reminded Seattle that its team is now in Oklahoma City. Then, he announced the NBA was rejecting the city's bid to get a team back. … For the past four months, we have been Stern's pawn. Now, we're back to being his punch line. No more. Let's not play this game anymore. The next time Seattle plays with the NBA, it has to be a fair game that the city is capable of winning. For certain, that means it has to be a game that Stern isn't overseeing, which will require waiting until Adam Silver takes over in February to engage in talks again. The Stern/Seattle relationship is too toxic to bother mending, and if there was any doubt about The Commish's grudge-holding ways, his opening remarks made his Seattle disdain clear. The league turned down an epic Seattle offer in order to do the right thing — and since when did the NBA start caring about doing the right thing? Seattle's failed bid doesn't just affect Sacramento. It gives a clear path for every incumbent NBA city to keep its team. Heck, the past two NBA relocation situations, both involving Seattle, provide a road map of what to do and what not to do.